After his mother died, Jean Noel Gehy’s next chapter in Haiti was uncertain.
One of seven children, his father was overwhelmed and unemployed.
“I couldn’t go to school and food was a luxury for us,’’ said Gehy.
Gehy and three of his three siblings were left at St. Helene’s Foyer, a children’s home in the mountains of Kenscoff operated by Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH), an international organization dedicated to caring for orphaned and abandoned children in Latin American and the Caribbean for nearly 60 years. Gehy was 10 at the time.
“Growing up at an NPH home seemed to be the ultimate chance in life. Before that I didn’t have any other options,’’ he says. “It is such a blessing to live somewhere that you are surrounded by people who care for you, share unconditional love and [teach you] to have a good sense of responsibility.’’
Now, after 15 years of that kind of inspired love and faith in second chances, Gehy is whole: At 25, he studying to become an industrial engineer in Haiti, volunteers in one of the NPH’s programs and is the architect of big plans to give back to his home, his country, his people.
This is Gehy’s story. This is NPH’s story.
NPH was founded in Mexico by a priest, Father William Wasson, who spent a lifetime championing children. In 1954, a boy was arrested for stealing from a small church in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. He stole because he was hungry. Rather than press charges, Wasson, of Phoenix, used the incident as a teachable moment, asking for custody of the boy.
One week later, a judge sent him eight more boys and by year’s end, he was in charge of 32 boys — the humble beginnings of NPH, where children are not adopted, but rather become part of a larger home family. Now, about 18,000 children have grown up in NPH homes operated in nine countries, including the largest, St. Helene Foyer, in Haiti.
But unlike a typical orphanage, the commitment to children extends beyond age 18, with the group financially supporting those who want to pursue higher education. In return, they volunteer at the home where they were raised for a year. More than 75 percent of the “pequenos” go to college.
“Our core mission is to raise children, give them a home and family and security,’’ says Frank Donaghue, CEO of NPH USA, the North American fundraising arm of the organization. “The children are raised together, they create their own family memories and become aunts and uncles to the children coming behind them.’’
Today, about 3,300 children are being cared for through NPH. About 450 live at the home in Kenscoff and another 200 at St. Don Bosco for pequenos who are attending college or vocational school in Haiti. The group also runs a home for special needs children in Chateaublond as well as the St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, which specializes in long-term critically ill children and is now the country’s largest pediatric clinic.
NPH also serves another 1,000 plus children in the community through programs offering with free meals and schooling. And even with the damage of the earthquake in 2010 to its own facilities and the death of several staff, volunteers and family members, NPH helped more than a million left injured or homeless. The group still supports the tent cities created by the earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 and injured 300,000.
NPH needs about $29 million to operate effectively, money generated mostly through donations and child sponsorship. It costs about $5,000 annually to support a child, and an additional $5,000 a year for a child to attend college. NPH USA is also planning a trip to Haiti in the spring for a small group as part of an effort to connect donors with children they support.
“Our needs right now are basic, food and clothing for the children and the cost to run the home,’’ said Southeast Regional Director Leah Stern, whose office is based in Miami-Dade.
Funding would also be used to support the hospital.
“We have a number of medical challenges such as cholera. We also are trying to reach a lot of the community to get them vaccinations, which are preventative,’’ says Dr. Jacqueline Gautier, medical director of St. Damien Hospital in Haiti. “We need the resources to operate the hospital and upgrade our equipment. Our operation lives on fundraising.’’